Nickel and Dimed Summary
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Within American culture, it is common for those who enjoy such advantages as having a safe and comfortable place to live, access to medical services, and proper nutrition to believe that these are the just deserts of their hard work and determination. The flip side of this common attitude is the idea that those who lack such things, the have-nots, are deprived due to their lack of motivation and resourcefulness. With the exception of those who are unable to work due to disability, those living in adverse conditions are generally not seen as deserving of sympathy from the more fortunate. In Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehlereich seeks to correct many such misconceptions about the bottom rungs of American society, and in particular, to make her readers aware of the obstacles that prevent even the most determined among the nation’s poor from achieving access to the lifestyle that most above them take for granted.
Ehlereich sets about her task drawing on the experiences she gained as she attempted to see for herself what life is like for America’s working poor. Traveling to Florida, then to Maine, and finally to Minnesota, Ehlereich’s mission was to get by supporting herself with no other resources than the salary she received from working jobs requiring no special training or education, in other words, jobs for unskilled laborers. Ehlereich would attempt to live as frugally as possible during her experiment, which meant, among other things, that she would forego spending money on new clothes, on entertainment, or on anything that was not absolutely necessary for survival.
The first stop on Ehlereich’s itinerary was Key West, Florida. One of the first things Ehlereich noticed was that the availability of jobs for unskilled laborers was much smaller than one would be led to believe by the number of job openings advertised. After sending out dozens of applications and hearing nothing back, Ehlereich finally is offered a job as a waitress.
As a waitress, the hours are long and the pay is insufficient for making ends meet, but there are no more lucrative positions available to Ehlereich. Committed to walking in the shoes of the working poor, Ehlereich does what is necessary to support herself, which means taking a second job working for a housecleaning service. But the combination of waitressing and cleaning proves to be too physically demanding for Ehlereich. Suffering from near exhaustion, Ehlereich gives up the housecleaning job after only a single day on the job. Although she had planned to remain in each of the three locations on the itinerary for at least a month, Ehlereich acknowledges that she has been defeated by Key West; She simply lacks the physical stamina to do what unskilled laborers do just to survive.
Another important observation Ehlereich makes in the course of her experiment is that in addition to earning low wages and living paycheck to paycheck, unskilled laborers are hit with extra costs for necessities such as rent and food. Lacking any substantial amount of savings, they are unable to provide security deposits that many landlords require from new tenants. Landlords who waive this condition in most cases will make up the difference by increasing the amount of rent demanded.
Being unable to accumulate significant savings also means that these working poor must also pay more for other necessities such as food. Many readers will have taken for granted the amount of money they save by being able to store food in their refrigerator. Those without means to purchase a fridge lose out on the savings, and moreover, are forced by their condition to subsist on cheap, but often unhealthy, food sold in convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
After Key West, Ehlereich makes a second go at her experiment in Portland, Maine, where she again takes two separate jobs – one as a housecleaner with The Maids housekeeping company, the other as an aide at a local nursing home. In Portland, Ehlereich experiences the same level of exhaustion that she experienced in Key West. Moreover, she gets a glimpse into the callous way that low-level workers are often treated by their employers. After one of Ehlereich’s co-workers with The Maids suffers an accident while working, it takes Ehlereich’s threatening to incite the other workers to strike before their boss will agree to give the injured worker a day off to recover.
Ehlereich’s final stop is Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she takes a job at Wal-Mart in the clothing department restocking the racks. The job requires extensive amounts of time spent on interviews and training before Ehlereich can even begin the job, which is tedious and exhausting in its own way. Aside from this, Ehlereich is unable to secure a normal apartment, as none available are within her budget. The situation forces Ehlereich to take up residence in a hotel, where she feels vulnerable to attack by those who pass by her first floor window.
In each location Ehlereich sees the same pattern of lack of opportunities for those struggling to survive, a situation perpetuated by employers and merchants who reap profits of all the hard work done by their employees and customers. What is perhaps most astonishing of all in Nickel and Dimed, however, is the resignation expressed by those whom Ehlereich works beside. It raises an important question: if those in some of the higher echelons of society are able to recognize the injustice and exploitation evident in Ehlereich’s narrative, why are those who are subject to such treatment unable to recognize it as such? Or if they do recognize it, why do they choose to grin and bear it? Such questions perhaps deserve further investigation of their own.
Ehrenreich begins her book by discussing her preparations for her endeavor. The idea is to enter the low-wage workforce for a period of time as a way of investigating poverty in the age of welfare reform. “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?” Ehrenreich asks. “How, in particular, [are] the roughly four million women about to booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?” In the vein of a scientist conducting an experiment, Ehrenreich resolves to find out for herself, adopting a few rules and limitations—no hunger, no homelessness, no relying on skills derived from her usual work, access to a car, whether her own or a Rent-a-Wreck paid for by her credit card—and beginning her journey in Key West, Florida.
She settles in a $500-a-month “efficiency” and starts scouring the want ads. Though she tries to steer clear of waitressing, that is exactly where she winds up—serving tables at a restaurant called Hearthside, attached to a big discount chain hotel. The job is from 2:00 to 10:00pm for $2.43 plus tips.
After only a few days on the job, major problems arise. First, management is oppressive. Stu, the restaurant’s assistant manager, watches for any evidence of relaxation and is constantly on employees’ cases, assigning trivial duties and making sure everyone is working—even when the place is nearly void of customers. Phillip, the top manager, lectures employees as though they were third graders, demeaning them with threats of unannounced locker searches and railing against employee “gossiping”. Second, the job doesn’t pay enough for Ehrenreich to cover her costs. The latter problem is a deal-breaker: Ehrenreich must find a second job to supplement her income. Hoping to find work as a housekeeper, she winds up in yet another waitressing outfit—this time at Jerry’s, attached to a budget hotel and more crowded and popular than Hearthside.
Jerry’s is an exhausting workplace, and soon the primary problem becomes fatigue. Ehrenreich must work from 8:00am to 2:00pm at Jerry’s, then from 2:10pm to 10:00pm at Hearthside. Before long she is struggling to stay awake and mobile. She quits Hearthside, but still exhaustion looms at Jerry’s, and she starts taking ibuprofens to ease a stress injury in her upper back. Her “saving human connection” is a nineteen year-old dishwasher from the Czech Republic named George. He has only been in the U.S. for a week, and Ehrenreich decides to teach him English.
Meanwhile, she moves from her efficiency to a trailer closer to Key West, to cut down on driving, and finally lands a job as a housekeeper—only to discover it’s even more hellish than waitressing, with nineteen hotel rooms cleaned in a single day. Back at Jerry’s, George is accused of stealing from the storage room, meaning he will surely lose his job and may even be sent back to the Czech Republic.
Through with low-wage work in Key West, Ehrenreich bails out and moves to Portland, Maine. To her disappointment, finding good wages is just as difficult there as in Key West, as is finding affordable housing. The average rate for low-wage jobs is $6-$7 an hour, as in Florida, and Ehrenreich encounters several dead-end accommodations before settling on the Blue Haven Motel. It seems like a nice place, and shortly thereafter Ehrenreich secures a position as a “dietary aide” at a nursing home called the Woodcrest Residential Facility for $7 an hour and a spot at a housecleaning service called The Maids for $6.65 an hour. Things seem to be going according to plan.
Ehrenreich’s supervisor at Woodcrest is a kindly woman named Linda, who shows her what the job consists of. In short, Ehrenreich must feed the residents when they arrive for breakfast, then wash the dishes afterwards. Through this process, the ward’s cook—Pete—exerts a great deal of power over Ehrenreich’s and other dietary aides’ workloads. For this reason, Ehrenreich makes a point of befriending him and telling him she is single.
Next comes The Maids. Training lasts a day and a half and consists primarily of watching videotapes detailing the cleaning process. The key, Ehrenreich discovers, is to make places look clean—even if they are not in fact clean. After training, work begins. It’s exhausting. The maids—all of whom seem desperately poor—must shuttle from house to house at breakneck speed and make only a fraction of the $25 per person-hour The Maids charges its customers. Ted, the franchise owner, is a tyrant who blames lockouts on employees and tells sick maids to “work through it”. One such sick maid is Holly, a twenty-three-year old to whose team Ehrenreich is assigned. Holly is abnormally pale and thin and never seems to eat much of anything. She eventually reveals she is probably pregnant.
Ehrenreich tries to persuade Holly to go home, but Holly refuses. So Ehrenreich tries to work harder and cut down on Holly’s duties. The result? Ehrenreich accidentally drops a pot into a fishbowl in a fancy home.
Meanwhile, her money is running out. She’s had to resort to medications for a rash she has developed at The Maids, and the Blue Haven Motel is more expensive than she thought it would be. To make matters worse, she finds herself forced one day to cover the entire Alzheimer’s ward at Woodcrest herself—a near-calamity caused by another dietary aide’s not showing up to work.
The troubles come to a head when Holly trips in a hole on the job and seems to break a bone. She refuses to go the emergency room and calls Ted, apologizing in tears. Ehrenreich blows up in outrage at Ted, then lashes out at her fellow employees. The latter is an outburst she deeply regrets. She resolves to quit, and reveals her identity to the other maids. The result is, in a word, anticlimactic.
The final leg of Ehrenreich’s journey is Minnesota. Once again, Ehrenreich harbors hopes of finding a more comfortable situation—and, once again, those hopes are dashed. In this case, Ehrenreich finds it next to impossible to find proper affordable housing. She winds up at the Clearview Inn, which she likens to the worst motel in the world. She feels unsafe and exposed, and shortly after her move the rent goes up. After a few more dead ends, Ehrenreich lands a room at the Comfort Inn—but she must pay a whopping $49.95 a night to stay there. This model won’t last her long either.
Meanwhile, Ehrenreich manages to secure positions at both Wal-Mart and Menards (a houseware store). After a grueling eight-hour orientation session at Wal-Mart, however, Ehrenreich feels too exhausted to make it to her morning shift at Menards and bails. Wal-Mart becomes her only workplace—and with its “unctuous service ethic”, railing assistant manager, and demeaning philosophy, it soon inspires a great deal of hostility in Ehrenreich. Once the housing situation looks to be lose-lose and Ehrenreich hears news of a hotel workers’ strike, she begins covertly spreading the word around Wal-Mart, knowing her days as an employee there are numbered anyway.
Ehrenreich concludes her book, having been forced by finances out of Minneapolis as well, by evaluating her own performance—“I didn’t do half-bad at the work itself,” she writes, “but my track record in the survival department is far less admirable”—and imploring fellow Americans to wake up to the “emergency” of post-welfare-reform poverty. “Something is wrong, very wrong,” Ehrenreich argues in what could be considered her book’s thesis statement, “when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow.”